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The Taken franchise, which devotes 294 minutes over the course of its three films to retired CIA operative Bryan Mills’ various missions to save his daughter and ex-wife from impending gang-induced doom, is, quite obviously, not real. The plotting of Taken 1-3 defies credulity. The tenuous connection between bullets fired and human deaths suggests that gun control is frankly unnecessary. If you attempted to explain the Taken films to a complete stranger, they could be forgiven for thinking you were describing a strange parallel universe.

And yet –

Taken is also supposed to be very real, at least by action film standards. Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills, unlike most ass-kicking action leads, is not a set of washboard abs out of which have sprouted some limbs and a head. He is a creaky old man, particularly in Taken 3. Likewise, the cities in which the Taken films are set–Paris, Istanbul, and Los Angeles, respectively–are real places. With a few minor exceptions in Taken 3, the franchise shies away from fancy gadgetry. The franchise, then, is insistent that it does not take place in a parallel universe.

The tension between the real and unreal is at the heart of the Taken experience. To the extent that it has any meaning, the franchise is the embodiment of the phrase “every father’s worst nightmare.” The Taken films are figurative works made by a band of literalists. (Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen are responsible for all three screenplays. Director Pierre Morel was replaced by the execrable Olivier Megaton for the two sequels.) The nightmarish quality of the Taken movies therefore tends to transcend the figurative realm and become literal; Bryan Mills isn’t living out every father’s worst nightmare so much as he is living in an actual nightmare.

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Taken makes a lot more sense when you think of it as a dream sequence. Its supporting characters, the most complex of whom are 1.5-dimensional at their best moments, can best be understood as Bryan Mills’ projections. Consider, for instance, Bryan Mills’ daughter, Kim. In Taken, she is headed off to Europe to follow U2 on tour. One might reasonably doubt that a teenager would sneak off to Europe in 2008 to become a U2 groupie, but this is classic Taken: Bryan Mills’ worst fears always materialize in the language of dad rock.

This staggering literalism is what makes the Taken films interesting. In the absence of subtext, the franchise foregrounds its fears about masculinity and fatherhood.

The beginning of each Taken film finds Bryan Mills trying to regain control over his family. His daughter always wants little to do with her biological father who, in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary, remains convinced that she is six-years-old. His ex-wife Lenore always hovers between reconciliation and estrangement. Bryan still sees himself as the family’s patriarch and protector but the rest of his family, to the extent that it remains his family, disagrees, leaving him to cook sad meals on his own.

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The precipitating crises in the Taken films–two kidnappings and a murder–all reassert Bryan’s control over his family’s fate. As the famous speech goes, he has a specific set of skills, which is only needed during such crises. This is the central paradox of the Taken franchise: Besson and Kamen ask you to view these events as tragic when they exist purely to reaffirm the hero’s masculinity. In a twisted way, Kim’s kidnapping in Taken is Mills’ greatest moment. Better films might make something out of this tension (of what use is a partner who is only needed during kidnappings?) but Taken just presents it as a fact of life. Liam Neeson is lost in the films’ opening sequences, particularly that of the unbearably ponderous Taken 3, but is always in his element when the gangsters arrive.

Those gangsters are another important part of Taken’s alternate universe, where threats to the family are always, in defiance of all logic and research, complete strangers. Never content to let an obvious symbol fester in the background, Besson and Kamen highlight the externality of this threat by making the gangsters grotesque foreign caricatures: they’re Albanian in the first two films and Russian in the third. If that weren’t enough, there’s also a sheikh who enjoys buying young, white virgins in Taken. The Mills family may be estranged but Taken never misses an opportunity to point out that they are more alike than any of the barbarians who threaten them.

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Since Mills’ foes are foreign, the Taken films have no qualms about killing them in great numbers. Some die in hand-to-hand combat, others are stabbed, and yet more are shot. This carefree attitude towards human life does not extend to the films’ white characters. Though LAPD officers chase Bryan Mills on multiple occasions in Taken 3, they never shoot at him. Coming on the heels of American protests against police brutality in general and, more specifically, the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, this trigger-shyness rings particularly hollow. But Bryan Mills has the privilege of being white in a franchise in which non-white lives have always been cheap, even more so than in America. His America, where a father can do anything in defense of his family, may not be a dream, but it definitely does not exist for all.

Bryan Mills is dedicated to fatherhood in a way that has little if anything to do with his actual daughter. He is the type of man who you expect to preface every statement with “as the father of daughters”; talking about Kim is really just a roundabout way of talking about himself. She, like everything in Taken is a convenient avatar more than she is a person. In Taken 3, for instance, Mills justifies his decision to flee the police officers who believe he has killed Lenore as a means of protecting Kim. Yet at the moment Mills makes this decision, he has no real reason to believe that Kim is in danger. (This, like everything in Taken 3, is later justified ex post facto.) Bryan Mills genuinely believes he has to protect his now-grown-up daughter at all times because that’s how his–and Taken’s–world works. But it’s just a dream: a violent, xenophobic, patriarchal power fantasy from which the Taken franchise has hopefully now been roused.